03/29/2003 1:00AM

At 68, Rice still at top of heap

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TAMPA BAY, Fla. - Trainer Don Rice will be 69 years old this September, but if you think he's headed for a fishing pole and a quiet retirement, think again.

The man they all have to beat when they race at Tampa Bay Downs, Rice is in the midst of another standout meeting. If the past 10 days are any indication, he's odds-on to take his seventh training title here.

In the 10 racing days that ended Thursday, the Rice stable sent 21 horses to the post, and eight of those starters won, a dazzling 38 percent winning rate. That run gave Rice 30 winners from 150 starters at this meeting and a six-win edge over Lynn Scace, his closest pursuer.

Rice isn't running a bunch of cheap claiming horses. Rice runners have earned $381,676 this meet, more than $100,000 more than any other outfit on the grounds.

Scace has sent out 24 winners at the meeting, three more than Richard Ciardullo Jr., Kathleen O'Connell, and Tony Pecoraro. Duane Knipe rounds out the top six with 19 wins.

Rice seems to have an uncanny ability to know when it's time to raise or drop a horse in class, when to claim, when to give a horse time, or when to race a horse heavily.

The quality of trainers here reflect's the improvement in the quality of racing. There have been three purse increases since the meeting began, and Tampa's full fields and competitive races have prompted more simulcast outlets to take the signal. During winter, when the weather causes cancellations at many tracks around the country, simulcast outlets can count on Tampa racing to be held as scheduled.

Turf course holding up well

Despite record rainfall this winter and an early mishap regarding the spreading of fertilizer that caused some small burn spots, the local turf course has held up remarkably well under the care of track superintendant Tom McLaughlin and his crew.

The grass here is as tall as it is on the best turf courses in the country. While horses kick up dust and dirt on turf courses at some other tracks, the course here continues to stay green and lush.

* Jockey Ann Lake, who won three races at this meeting, suffered a dislocated right knee and serious ligament damage when her mount in last Tuesday's sixth race, Mahogony Mink, flipped over and landed on her in the paddock. Lake had won on Mahogony Mink earlier in the meeting. She will be sidelined indefinitely.